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How can Atlantic City fix its job problem?

ATLANTIC CITY — There are really two places called Atlantic City when it comes to bolstering jobs.

There is the one that exists, with an overabundance of low-skilled workers, only about 16% of whom have college degrees, and many of whom live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And there is the one people dream about creating, in which new industries attract highly educated workers in aviation, technology and the sciences.

Somehow, community leaders, government officials and businesses must figure out how to increase employment for both versions of the city, if the dream of a diversified economy and thriving community is to become a reality.

Atlantic County Chief of Staff Howard Kyle wants people to take a broader, regional approach to job creation.

“The best way to bring jobs to Atlantic City is to bring jobs to Atlantic County,” Kyle said.

There is no reason why many of Atlantic City’s 39,000 residents can’t commute to jobs at the Atlantic City International Airport or National Aviation and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township, which he and others in the county were instrumental in getting built, Kyle said.

He and other county officials also are working with the South Jersey Transportation Authority and Atlantic County Economic Alliance to bring an aviation repair and maintenance operation to the airport. If it decides to come here, the county will build it a hangar, officials have said.

“Most of the better-paying jobs for Atlantic City residents will be located offshore,” said Kyle, who was born and raised in the resort.

It is simpler to build on the Mainland, where there is more land; and easier to attract businesses to existing infrastructure.

“In Atlantic City, there is not a single Class A office building,” Kyle said, meaning a modern building with modern amenities available for rent.

And new construction so far has concentrated in the “eds and meds” sectors, like the Stockton University Atlantic City Campus that opened in September, and a planned expansion of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.

While “eds and meds” are vital to any city, the jobs available in them can often require higher level education and skills.

Stockton’s Atlantic City Campus Chief Operating Officer Brian Jackson said 200 part-time and full-time jobs, including student jobs, have been created in the first year of the city campus. About 70 of them are filled by workers who live in the city, he said.

About 50 are with Stockton and the rest are with vendors that run the bookstore, shuttle, food service and security, Jackson said.

But Stockton’s teaching and administration jobs, by their very nature, require hiring people with master’s degrees or doctorates, he said. Even secretarial or administrative assistant positions can require bachelor’s degrees, he said.

“We recognize not everyone has had the opportunity for access to a 4-year degree, but being in the university environment we strongly encourage that,” Jackson said. “We have incentive programs such as tuition waiver that make it much easier and affordable for employees and their dependents to get a Stockton degree.”

The need for jobs for city residents remains great, with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent compared to 7 percent countywide, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2012-2017.

The unemployment rate for the county has declined to 4.1 percent, according to federal figures. But up-to-date figures were not available for the city.

Rhonda Lowry is the director of Atlantic County’s Workforce Development Board, which shares a building in Pleasantville with the state unemployment office and state employment development office on Main Street.

The unemployment insurance office handles payments, the employment office handles outreach to businesses to help match workers with them, and the WDB provides the training and education workers need to land jobs, Lowry said.

“We work hand-in-hand,” Lowry said. “We prepare those who are either dislocated or underemployed/unemployed to get skills to get the current jobs out there.”

Her clients up to age 25 skew more to Atlantic City and Pleasantville residents, Lowry said, but older people in need of job retraining come from all over the county.

This year, starting July 1, she began a new program to focus on the specific needs of employers, she said.

“We have put out a Request for Proposals to solicit a pool of vendors,” Lowry said, who would provide training tailored to the needs of specific businesses who are willing to hire people.

“If (a casino) said they needed a specific type of cook, we would contract with a school,” Lowry said, to provide just that specific training and no more. It might be a particular cuisine, a short-order cook or other restricted needs.

A student might not complete an entire culinary program at Atlantic Cape Community College, which might take too long and provide too broad a range of training, she said. The job seeker would only get the specific type of training needed by the casino hotel.

“We couldn’t do this last year,” Lowry said.

When the RFPs come in, they will tell her which vendors are able to do custom training, “and how much it will cost me,” Lowry said.

“In the past, we normally just get people who say, ‘We need this job filled,’ and we find people to fit those needs,” Lowry said. “We want to be able to match them better.”

If the aircraft maintenance company comes to the airport, it may take a while to get a school up and running to fill those jobs, she said.

“We may have to bring people in at first, then hopefully have a pipeline with a school here,” Lowry said. “If people are making more money, they are spending more, and it makes our economy better, too. It starts with making the employer come first.

Lowry wrote a successful grant to get state funding to pay youth ages 16 to 14 $10 an hour to work in Atlantic County businesses this summer, to gain experience and help them financially while also helping businesses.

It’s going well, she said, with about 75 young people placed in jobs from the eds and meds sector to a funeral home.

People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Join the conversation here.

As sea levels rise, one Delaware Bay community is vanishing

Tony Novak strolls down Nantucket Road in the sweltering heat, as pieces of the Downe Township street erode and fall into the bay.

His dog Baxter trots ahead and investigates the remnants of a broken-down mobile home parked on a patch of grass with its contents spilling out.

“It’s been like that for a while,” said Novak, pointing to the unit, which sits next to an abandoned one-story, blue house perched on pilings. His nearby marina is now closed after averaging only one customer per day.

Money Island Downe Township

This is Money Island, a rural, flood-prone community along the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County where the state has been making offers to buy houses from residents under the Blue Acres program enacted after Hurricane Sandy.

Since 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection has purchased 26 properties, some already vacant, on the island, totaling more than $2.7 million, according to the agency.

Only a few holdouts remain, either unwilling or unable financially to leave. For some, the rustic, remote section of Downe Township, which sits slightly above sea level, is a quiet slice of paradise away from the bustling Jersey Shore.

And packing up isn’t easy.

“It was sort of love at first sight. ... Money Island was my escape and my place to be peaceful with my family in a place of beauty,” said Meghan Wren, who bought her house along Nantucket Creek in 1997.

Recently, she signed paperwork to enter discussions with the DEP. Whether she accepts an offer, she said, will depend on if the price allows her to both pay off her mortgage and purchase a new home.

It’s a tough decision, though, and one she feels is being forced on her.

Since Hurricane Sandy, the state gave out $194,700 to Money Island residents for elevations and other flood mitigation measures, according to Department of Community Affairs records. At the same time, it poured millions into managed retreat from the bay.

“It’s not feeling voluntary,” Wren said. “It’s feeling like you’re going to be in a difficult situation if you don’t take the buyout.”

The concept of retreat New Jersey is undertaking on Money Island may become a blueprint for other coastal communities as climate change presents more of a threat in the coming years, though it hasn’t reached wealthier shore towns.

In its study of flooding on New Jersey’s back bays, the Army Corps of Engineers dedicated an entire section to the strategy.

But the Blue Acres program is not without its flaws, says Andrew Lewis, author of the upcoming book “The Drowning of Money Island,” which presents an in-depth look at how sea level rise and buy-backs impacted the remote community. He grew up about 20 miles away in Hopewell Township.

Under the program, officials offer pre-Sandy values for homes that were occupied at the time of the storm. They purchase properties in clusters. Each time a homeowner uses a grant to repair or elevate a house, that amount is deducted from the offer price, he said.

Those who accepted buyouts early-on made out the best, Lewis said, while waiting for a higher price often usually had the opposite effect.

And as people abandon the community, Lewis said vandalism, littering and fire safety become issues around unmaintained homes before the state arrives to demolish them.

“For the people who stick around, it might not be the best situation,” Lewis said.

Mayor Bob Campbell says the buyouts also hurt the township’s tax base. According to the tax collector’s office, the township lost $144,300 since 2016 from the 26 properties bought by the state and turned into open space.

The small, year-round fishing community that once existed is largely gone, he said.

Over the past few years though, Campbell, Novak and others have drawn up a redevelopment plan for the mostly vacant, 54-acre Money Island.

It includes grand ideas of a university/education research center and an upgraded aquaculture and commercial docking facility for the $40 million oyster industry there and for environmental tourists. Rutgers University already has conducted research on living shorelines on Money Island.

On Thursday morning, dozens of commercial crabbers and oyster catchers trawled the waters.

The plan is in early stages, and there’s no funding yet for the projects, but the township is moving ahead with a $15 million wastewater treatment plant for neighboring Fortescue and Gandy’s Beach.

“I’m not trying to build a casino here or anything,” said Campbell. “I just want people to have a real bathroom and facilities and to be able to enjoy the nature.”

Atlantic City property-tax spike a big surprise

ATLANTIC CITY — Property taxes here are going up this year by a substantial amount — $676.50 on a $150,000 home — even though the city, county and school district all have announced stable budgets.

A loss of property value, and the end of millions of dollars a year in tax-appeal refund credits from the county to the city have conspired to create the situation, said Atlantic County Tax Administrator Margaret M. Schott.

She and her staff were surprised when they worked up this year’s numbers, she said.

Most people don’t know about it yet, as quarterly tax bills haven’t been mailed. They should arrive in people’s mailboxes in the next two weeks, according to the city Tax Collector’s Office.

“It’s not a marginal tax increase. It’s going to hurt some people,” said Bill Heaney, an out-of-state resident who has owned a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit at the Berkeley Condominiums in the Chelsea section as a vacation home since 2014.

He and wife Stacy discovered their 2019 tax bill was about $800 higher than last year’s when they went online to pay their quarterly tax bill last week. Their taxes are going up from about $7,500 a year to roughly $8,300, he said.

The biggest increase is in county taxes, up 20 cents per $100 valuation, or $373.50 on a modest $150,000 home in the resort.

It’s happening in spite of the city’s share of the county tax burden decreasing. A loss of $358 million in equalized value from successful tax appeals and sales data adjustments brought the city’s bill for county taxes down to $11.8 million this year, from $13 million in 2018.

But last year, the city had a $7.1 million credit to offset its county tax bill, so only about $6 million was actually billed to taxpayers, said Keith Szendrey, assistant to the tax administrator.

This year, the refund from the county was only about $300,000, so the city’s final bill was much higher at $11.4 million, he said.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the city’s finances, said Friday it is calling for a joint task force to coordinate and reduce taxes. It is inviting Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, and the Atlantic City Board of Education to join DCA and city elected officials in the effort.

The spokesperson said the municipal tax rate is the only one it has control over, and that the municipal portion of property taxes did not go up. DCA oversight decreased the municipal tax rate by 11.4 percent in 2017, and kept it flat in 2018 and 2019.

Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.

Council President Marty Small Sr. said the city has continued to lose tax revenue because of its shrinking property base.

In 2010, the city had more than $20 billion in property value, according to state data. In 2016, when the state assumed fiscal oversight of Atlantic City, that base had shrunk to $6.5 billion. Last year, the city had less than $2.9 billion in property value, after the casinos were removed from the rateable base with the start of the payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program in 2017.

That figure is down to $2.5 billion for Atlantic City in 2019.

The school tax bill of a resident in Atlantic City will increase by $297 for a home valued at $150,000.

The city’s school tax rate is up almost 20 cents on the dollar as a result of the reduction in the overall tax base of the city, Szendrey said.

The total school tax levy actually decreased slightly this year by about $300,000, Szendrey said. In contrast, the overall tax base decreased by about $400 million.

“The numerator got small, but the denominator got significantly smaller, which is why the tax rate went up,” Szendrey said, adding that is not something the school board has control over.

The school district this year approved a $186.6 million budget for the 2019-20 school year with an $87.8 million general fund tax levy that will be offset by about $45 million in funds from the casino PILOT agreement.

The county tax increase “looks shocking, but it’s only really a return to normalcy,” Szendrey said.

At 45.8 cents per $100 valuation in 2019 — up from 20.9 cents last year — the county tax rate for Atlantic City is in line with other municipalities, he said.

Atlantic City’s county tax rate remains the lowest of all 23 municipalities.

“Atlantic City has had an artificially low county rate because of artificially high credits as a result of appeals,” Szendrey said.

Republican Assembly candidates Phil Guenther, of Brigantine, and Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley, of Egg Harbor Township, blamed the PILOT legislation and said if elected one of their first priorities would be to introduce legislation to fix the PILOT law.

They are challenging Democrat incumbents Vince Mazzeo, sponsor of the PILOT legislation, and John Armato, both D-Atlantic, in this year’s election.

County Executive Dennis Levinson said the state should help city taxpayers deal with the higher bills.

“They saw this day coming. They are smart, but they didn’t do anything about it,” Levinson said of state overseers. “The state has to share responsibility here. You can’t put it all on taxpayers. They can’t absorb that.”

He said the city’s county tax rate is probably where it should have been for many years.

“Now they are paying their fair share without the county taxpayers kicking in $7 million a year for their tax appeals,” Levinson said.

Over the past decade, the county paid the city an average of $7.2 million a year in tax refunds, Levinson said.

The DCA spokesperson said the state also recognizes the need to expand home ownership and the city’s property tax base to keep taxes stable.

Heaney said the new tax bills will undermine the city’s attempt to market itself to homebuyers.

“If we make it unbearable for people to live in Atlantic City because of high taxes, it defeats the purpose of trying to make A.C. a destination for homes and vacation rather than just a gaming destination,” Heaney said.

Since the PILOT agreement with the city’s casinos began in 2017, gaming properties are no longer included in the city’s tax base. Only noncasino properties are assessed and billed for county taxes.

The 13.5% share of the PILOT payments made to the county is treated as revenue, as the state required, said Levinson. It it taken directly off the amount the county has to raise in taxes.

Staff Writer Claire Lowe contributed to this report.